by Marie Notcheva
Recently, I was talking with two girlfriends after a Bible study. The subject came around to biblical reproof, and how we accept it from others. Recently, I published an article on the damaging effects of criticism and how it can embitter a person; today, let’s look at at the other side of the coin: confrontation of a specific sin or attitude, offered in legitimate love and concern.
Although we like to think otherwise, we cannot view ourselves objectively. As my pastor says, “Scripture warns us that our heart is deceitful, and can trick us even when we think that our actions and motives are pure.” This is confusing, because we are in the best situation to know all the details of our circumstance better than anyone else. However, what we cannot see (particularly in painful circumstances which may be due to someone else’s sin) is that unresolved hurt and anger can easily lead to hardness of heart; cynicism; and ambivalence. Left to our own counsel, we may do what feels right or looks logical, without considering the harder commands of Christ.
Because we are filtering our situation through experience, we feel perfectly justified. It is difficult for all of us to hear constructive feedback clearly, especially when strong emotions and painful experiences are mixed into the equation. With even a scrap of biblical literacy, we can easily find justification for what we want. And while we may be partially or fully right, we still may become embittered in the process and thus forfeit intimacy with God. We need the objective third-party view of a wise fellow Christian.
Friends, Foes and Spiritual Authorities
Proverbs 27:6 reminds us that truly good friends are not those who simply tell us what we want to hear:“Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy”. A person who gives you feelings-based counsel is not a friend; nor is someone who advises you to run from your church at the first sign of conflict. As a very straight-forward person, I appreciate my close Christian friends who are going to speak truth into my life. Often, situations are less than black-and-white, and a wise person considers all angles before making a judgement. And yet, while we may solve the world’s problems over coffee, the admonishment of a friend does not carry the same weight of authority as that of a pastor. A good pastor will listen; understand; exegete Scripture with you; and may caution you in the same way as a friend – but his counsel may be more objective; and certainly more authoritative.
This year, a very serious situation in my life requiring drastic measures (and the involvement of the Church) came to a head. My pastor, with whom I’d been in regular contact, wrote:
“…because I love you I think it is important to address what I believe I can observe from your own heart and responses in all of this. I know that you’ve been hurt Marie and I am sure I can’t imagine the pain and stress you’ve experienced. But my concern for you is that it seems that your heart is hard in response to what you’ve experienced. I think there is a real danger that you are…solving the problem of your pain with your own solution, rather than following the path that God’s word has provided.”
The Bible talks about “confronting in love” and “rebuking”, but I honestly did not read this as a rebuke – rather, it was a diagnosis. Several friends had cautioned me to stay close to God; no matter how dark it got, not to let my heart grow hard; and similar things. But this was different. A perceptive observation from a truly caring (and patient) pastor helped me to see and want to deal with my own attitude more proactively. As my friend Kim said, “That’s why we need pastors. God knew that if we just judged ourselves, everybody would just ‘do right in his own eyes’ – God knew what He was doing when He established Church authority.” Of course this isn’t to say that churches never err, or that spiritual abuse doesn’t sometimes happen – but when leaders are truly motivated by love and concern for the members’ spiritual well-being, it is far less likely to be the case.
How Does a Hardened Heart Feel?
When I’m interpreting for patients in a cardiology clinic, I can anticipate the doctor’s questions: “Do you have any chest pain? Numbness or tingling down your arm? Shortness of breath?” These are always the first symptoms a physician uses to rule out heart problems. But what are the questions a “soul doctor” might hypothetically ask to diagnose a hardened heart? Perhaps:
- Do you feel misunderstood, maligned by those who love you?
- Have you experienced a loss of appetite for the Word of God?
- Do you experience feelings of anger, unforgiveness or self-pity on a regular basis?
- Are you having difficulty praying, especially for those who have hurt you?
Of course, close friends or a counselor/pastor with whom we’ve been speaking might not even have to directly ask these “diagnostic questions” to know the answers. They can often diagnose our heart-issues before we can ourselves, but a friend may be reluctant to tell us their concerns. A trained counselor or pastor isn’t. How we receive that feedback becomes the deciding factor of what we do next; and if we do not believe that the counselor genuinely cares for us, we may resist his or her counsel and become further ‘hardened’. That’s why it is so important to establish trust. Even a child will not accept guidance from someone he doesn’t believe wants his best.
When I was in college, I listened to a Christian hard rock band called “Petra”. (I know. Look, it was the ‘90’s. Don’t judge.) One of their songs, based on Psalm 95:7-8 and Hebrews 3:13 was called “Don’t Let Your Heart Be Hardened”. One verse went,
“Don’t let your heart be hardened/don’t let your love grow cold
May it always stay so childlike/ may it never grow too old
Don’t let your heart be hardened/may you always know the cure;
Keep it broken before Jesus, keep it thankful, meek, and pure…”
We don’t like to be “broken”. On Sunday morning, we sing along with Hillsong’s Brooke Frasier “Break my heart for what breaks yours”; but we don’t want to really be broken. Being broken hurts. Having a soft heart allows it to be bruised; and after so much of that, we allow ourselves to grow callused and cold. The only ‘preventative medicine’ for a hardened heart is to stay close to Jesus, Who describes Himself as “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29). He has already given us the prescription: meditating on His Word day and night; along with seeking good counsel from godly friends and mentors (Psalm 37:30). Hearing the truth spoken in love and taking the time to seek God on it ourselves emboldens us to face our own short-comings without condemnation – and gives us the courage to act accordingly.